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The Ever-Expanding Kingdom of Bull

Neil Greenspan takes an appalled glance at all the BS in academia and beyond.

Harry Frankfurt began his hugely popular philosophical monograph, On Bullshit (Princeton U.P., 2005), with the following assertion: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit” (‘BS’). Subsequent political events have not only supported this claim, they have rendered it an understatement. It is not merely that there is so much of it, but that it is incessant, and comes from all quarters: government, academia, business, and the media.

Professor Frankfurt characterizes BS as statements by an individual unconcerned with the truth. He says it is to be distinguished from lying, ie, intentional falsehoods. According to Frankfurt, a liar knows the truth and chooses to promulgate its opposite: a producer of BS does not necessarily intend to disseminate falsehoods, but is instead indifferent to the truth. While this is a reasonable starting point, further analysis suggests that the category should be broadened in scope. G.A. Cohen, in an influential essay included in Bullshit and Philosophy (edited by Gary Hardcastle & George Reisch, 2006), extended the range of application of bull to academic arguments which in his memorable formulation are characterized by ‘unclarifiable unclarity’. Those disciplines concerned with human activities, emotions, motives, and aspirations, where subjectivity is inherent, may be especially deserving of attention. Who has not encountered academic prose in the humanities or social sciences that is simultaneously self-important and effectively impenetrable?

Shifting to the natural sciences, researchers sometimes offer conclusions that they may (or may not) sincerely believe, but which are based on inadequate or incorrect information, sloppy or erroneous reasoning, or flawed methodology. Irrespective of the intentions of the authors, critics are as likely as not to refer to such pronouncements with the epithet ‘bullshit’. Similarly, true statements, presented as novel or informative, but that are actually lacking in novelty or practical value, can be labeled bull, again without respect to whether or not the originators of the statements in question are sincerely interested in the truth or not.

What cause or causes are responsible for the putative increase in the volume of BS? One plausible factor is the conjunction of a relatively free market and the progress in sciences relating to human psychology and behavior. Thus, unfortunately, the advance of real knowledge relating to how brains and minds work in rendering decisions has had the perverse effect of facilitating other varieties of BS. For example, new insights into the determinants of advertising effectiveness have facilitated more effective, and more misleading, advertising.

One factor that may be increasing the tolerance for BS in natural sciences is increasing specialization. Coupled with the growth in increasingly sophisticated and expensive experimental technologies, these trends mean that most investigators can only fully understand portions of their fields. Given that academics usually have little to gain from severely criticizing an already published paper, especially if the co-authors are influential, work of dubious rigor can accumulate relatively uncontested.

Another major factor promoting the non-stop dissemination of bullshit is the increase in TV and radio channels and the consequent need to fill the programming schedule. Opinion programming is cheaper to produce than news programming, which requires the gathering and verification of information. Furthermore, balanced opinions that acknowledge complex causes and competing effects are generally less effective at generating audience interest than extreme views unconstrained by inconvenient facts and designed to appeal to a pre-determined demographic. The proclivity of journalists to build stories around sound bites, often taken out of context leads to distortion of the fuller messages. Financial incentives and the constraints of reporting on tight deadlines also favor excessive BS.

In parallel, the growth of the Internet and its increased opportunities for expression have permitted the expression of opinions by a far wider range of participants. Although some non-professional commentators are thoughtful and respectful of the limits of their information sources, as some professional journalists are sometimes not, the average coherence and rigor of argument has declined, as more individuals with little or no training or expertise on a given issue offer opinions to the public. The Internet has promoted the further expansion of BS.

Another influence is that the growing infatuation with celebrities, facilitated by the coverage of their every move through television and social media, has added incentives for the highly-visible to ever-more-carefully manage their images. Actors, athletes, academics, business executives, politicians, even journalists, are continually selling themselves. In such an environment, truth is unlikely to be seen as a reliable, constant friend, since eventually truth proves to be inconvenient for virtually everyone.

Add to the above factors the resumé-building culture that dominates education, and the associated focus on education primarily as a means to an economic end. The trend among even very capable students is to be interested in what is on the test and what needs to be done to ascend the next step on the stairway to career heaven. Taking the time to struggle with abstract and difficult concepts that do not have immediate quantifiable practical applications is not favored by this milieu. Hence there are too many cheerleaders and too few critical thinkers.

Finally, there has been a cultural evolution towards associating courageous thinking with absolutist statements which reduce almost any problem to two categories, for or against. Such classification schemes are often false dichotomies, which serve to hinder serious discussion and deliberation. In biomedical research and clinical medicine, I have found that to fully grapple with a problem it is often necessary to entertain categories with fuzzier or more fluid boundaries than are typically employed (see my paper ‘Dimensions of antigen recognition and levels of immunological specificity’ in Advanced Cancer Research #80, 2001). The need to force phenomena to fit into inadequate schemes of classification can facilitate the generation of BS.

A limited amount of BS may be the price for creativity and the exploration of the unknown; but we have reached a stage where the constant generation of tendentious misinformation and pseudo-information is impoverishing the commons. We need to restrain, or better, reverse the expansion of this kingdom of bull. Perhaps our best hope for doing so is broader, more effective education in measured skepticism and critical thinking.

© Prof. Neil Greenspan 2011

Neil Greenspan is an immunologist and professor of pathology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

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